I got around to finishing Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), the other day. Although in structure it’s a rather helter-skelter parody of American travel literature of the period, there’s a deeper journey there too, suggested by Twain’s journey east, from modern America to the old Europe, then eastward again into the ancient Holy Land and Egypt: a journey backward in time as well as eastward in geography. The Twain persona is in its infancy in The Innocents Abroad, but no longer in embryo as it had been in his earlier journalism: the face a dead pan, self-mocking (as well as other-mocking), enjoying a good drink now and again (and again). The further along the voyage to the east and into the past becomes, the more profound it becomes, however; the light humor and caricature are displaced by subversive meditations on the relationship of human beings and history. Finally, Twain leaves the Holy Land with even more skepticism about religion and humanity than when he arrived; the more he comes face to face with history and belief, the less he has faith with either. (Note the subtitle of the book.) I’d have more to say about Innocents Abroad, had I the time to say it. But I’d recommend it. Most travel books are recommendable; I’m glad to have Twain’s portrait of the Holy Land to confirm me in my complete disinterest in going there myself.
Here’s a good online resource covering the writing, influence, and reception of The Innocents Abroad. It’s a part of the “Mark Twain in His Times” web site at the University of Virginia, “Written and Directed by Stephen Railton.”
2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Quaker City, the boat that took Twain and his compatriots from New York to Egypt and back again. A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, is being aired on various public television stations this month; narrated by Martin Sheen, the film explores the Quaker City voyage that led to The Innocents Abroad, and features rare film of Twain and Jerusalem itself. I’m unable to find airtimes in my local area, but maybe you’ll be able to. The trailer for the film is below.